Five of the best pieces of Carrollian nonsense selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Lewis Carroll (1832-98) is probably best-remembered for his two novels for children, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. The latter of these two books contained the classic nonsense poem, ‘Jabberwocky’, and Carroll’s poetry can easily match that of his fellow Victorian nonsense-maker, Edward Lear for sheer fun and zaniness. Below we’ve picked what we think are Lewis Carroll’s five best poems, complete with some information about them.
This poem is recited by the fat twins, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, to Alice in Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Some commentators have interpreted the predatory walrus and carpenter – who feed on the oysters they find on a beach – as representing Buddha (because the walrus is large) and Jesus (the carpenter being the trade Jesus was raised in).
It’s unlikely that this was Carroll’s intention, not least because the carpenter could easily have been a butterfly or a baronet instead (he actually gave his illustrator, John Tenniel, the choice, so it was Tenniel who selected ‘carpenter’):
The sun was shining on the sea,
Shining with all his might:
He did his very best to make
The billows smooth and bright —
And this was odd, because it was
The middle of the night.
The moon was shining sulkily,
Because she thought the sun
Had got no business to be there
After the day was done —
‘It’s very rude of him,’ she said,
‘To come and spoil the fun.’
Click on the link provided above to read the full poem and learn more about it.
Carroll loved playing around with language, of course, and one form of poem he enjoyed writing was the acrostic, where the first letter of the poem’s lines spells out a word or phrase. Here, ‘A Boat beneath a Sunny Sky’ spells out the full name of his ‘muse’ for the first Alice book, Alice Pleasance Liddell:
3. ‘The Mad Gardener’s Song’.
He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practised on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
‘At length I realise,’ he said,
‘The bitterness of Life!’
This poem is less famous than some of the others on this list, largely because it first appeared in Lewis Carroll’s Sylvie and Bruno books (1889-93), which met with less critical and popular acclaim than the Alice books. Nevertheless, it’s great fun, focusing on a man who confuses a letter from his wife with an elephant practising on a fife, and a hippo for a banker (well, who hasn’t?).
Some of the trademark elements of Lewis Carroll’s poetry are here: the mistaking of one thing for something quite different, the misdirection, the surprise, the nonsensical nature of what’s being described.
‘Just the place for a Snark!’ the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
‘Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said it thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.’
Subtitled ‘An Agony in 8 Fits’, The Hunting of the Snark is the longest Carroll poem on this list, and one of his finest pieces of nonsense verse. Variously interpreted as an adventure story, an allegory about the search for happiness (Carroll’s own interpretation of his poem), and even a ‘tragedy’ (by the poem’s illustrator Henry Holiday), the poem follows the crew who set sail in search of the mysterious creature known as the Snark.
Critics and readers have also speculated about the significance of the number 42 in the poem (Carroll’s age when he began writing it): was this where Douglas Adams got his answer to the meaning of life, the universe and everything?
‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe …
This classic tale of monster-slashing wrapped up into a short nonsense poem is probably Lewis Carroll’s finest poem. It gave us two now commonplace words – ‘chortle’ and ‘galumph’ – and also inspired the name of a computer program that coins new words. Carroll actually began writing the poem that became ‘Jabberwocky’ in his early twenties, but it appeared in the 1871 book Through the Looking-Glass, where Humpty Dumpty provides Alice with an explanation about what it means.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Illustration for ‘Jabberwocky’ by John Tenniel, 1871; Wikimedia Commons.